It began in May, when North Carolina A&T State University computer science students Paul Hammond and Lusenii Kromah connected about their upcoming internships at Silicon Valley technology companies.
Lusenii, a class of 2016 graduate, was headed to Adobe as a web development intern. Paul, also a web developer and graduating senior, had landed an internship at Apple. As newly minted HBCU graduates, they were excited to move out to the Bay Area to get started. Both Black, they were also already tired of hearing about the lack of racial diversity at tech companies (being a “unicorn” gets old fast). Their conversations sparked a question:
“Is there a group or a quick way for Black tech interns to connect in Silicon Valley?”
When they couldn’t find the network they were envisioning, they created a chat on the mobile messaging app GroupMe – a community for Black interns working at Silicon Valley technology companies to be able to share professional and academic resources and meet up in person. They whipped up a logo on Photoshop and named the group "Black Valley". Within a couple of days, they’d virtually united 30 people.
Once they arrived in San Francisco, they looped in Morehouse College class of 2017 physics major Dakari Franklin – Paul’s roommate and a fellow Apple HBCU Scholar. From there, friends of friends were conversing in the group and inviting other interns they knew or met on the job to join too.
By the end of the summer, the Black Valley GroupMe had ballooned to more than 540 Black interns from Apple, Facebook, Google, Intel, Uber, and a host of other leading tech companies and startups.
“It’s amazing to see such diversity, charisma, and intelligence in one group that the world systematically tries to discredit,” says Jazmin, who interned at IBM. “It was magical.”
Lusenii – who's introduction to the San Francisco tech scene was during the United Negro College Fund’s 2015 HBCU Innovation Summit – says what started as a scrappy solution to bring people together grew into much more: “It’s a movement of professional and academic excellence – an expanding network of Black individuals focused on innovation and ending stereotypes.”
The group’s charter for its members is three-fold:
Be yourself. Represent yourself. Change the face of tech forever.
Adebola Akeredolu, a Black Valley member and new hire at Tesla, says he found a lot of motivation in the network, whether he was participating in Monday morning prayers, finding out about company events and open houses, or just reading through the virtual conversations.
For Amani James, a Pandora intern, Black Valley provided a welcomed refuge in an otherwise unfamiliar setting.
“To come from a place like New York where everyone is represented and then suddenly be living and working in a place where I am one of two people of color on my entire team was very overwhelming and discouraging at times,” he says. “Black Valley provided me with the network and circle to work beyond those systematic limitations and build my own path.”
Lusenii emphasizes that Black Valley offers more than just social and emotional support; it’s also a place to get professional input from a group with a diverse range of skillsets and interests. “There are engineers, designers, and marketing people, which is great when you want feedback from all those directions; a member participating in Y Combinator was doing user research, and he dropped a product into the chat and got real-time feedback,” he says. “And we also want to bring people together in real life,” Lusenii says. “If somebody wants to have a party in Palo Alto or a cookout in San Jose, they can get that together.”
The growth has continued via word of mouth (or, word of text). Historically, interns from specific minority backgrounds might get to know other underrepresented minorities at their company through employee resource groups and networking events. Black Valley aims to create community across companies, and the interactions can extend beyond the group chat.
Now that summer internships have wrapped up, many Black Valley members have left San Francisco, but the conversation and community live on. Lusenii is in Atlanta pursuing his computer science master’s at the Georgia Institute of Technology, but he and fellow members are already planning a Black Valley meet-up for Atlanta-based folks this fall.
“I didn’t know all these people were out there,” he says. “At this point, I don’t think there’s a door to a tech company that we can’t open.”
Images courtesy of Black Valley